17 arrested at St. Mary's College party Police use dogs and a helicopter to disperse crowd

September 07, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal and Erika Niedowski | Jill Hudson Neal and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

ST. MARY'S CITY -- St. Mary's College officials are trying to figure out exactly what happened on campus early yesterday morning after 17 students were arrested by St. Mary's County sheriff's deputies and Maryland State Police who were called to disperse a late-night party involving at least 300 students.

Students described a chaotic scene that began after police arrived with dogs and used pepper spray and a helicopter to break up the party that spilled outdoors from several townhouse-style dormitories on part of the college campus known as Townhouse Greens, said Jane Margaret O'Brien, the college president.

"Everyone who was involved in this used what they thought was good judgment to the best of our knowledge," O'Brien said.

State police made four arrests and denied dispensing pepper spray. County sheriff's deputies arrested 13 students and would not confirm using pepper spray. Beyond that, the St. Mary's Sheriff's Department would not answer questions about the incident. Neither would St. Mary's campus police, who initially called for help.

O'Brien, however, said some of the police officers used a "chemical agent" to disperse the students. She also confirmed that dogs and a helicopter were present.

College officials are trying to piece together what happened on the placid college campus of 1,600 students on the shores of the St. Mary's River.

With that in mind, O'Brien; the college's dean of student affairs, Michael Freeman; and Harry Tafe, the director of campus police, met with about 200 students and a handful of concerned parents yesterday to gather more information about the incident, which began about 11 p.m. Saturday and ended about 1 a.m. yesterday.

"I do not support anyone coming onto campus hurting students," said Freeman. "But now we have to get the facts, and get the facts right. Normally, there are no problems that would require the police to come to campus."

Students were invited to write their version of events and give them to Freeman.

The students arrested were charged with disorderly conduct, which can include such violations as public drunkenness and failure to disperse. They were taken to the St. Mary's Detention Center in nearby Leonardtown and held until 8 a.m. yesterday, when they were released on their own recognizance.

"The end result is not what any of us wanted. The bad thing is no one is happy about a circumstance like this and we all need to evaluate very closely," O'Brien said.

"I couldn't believe anything like this was happening here," said Mark Hershfield, a junior. "The scene was just really out of control -- police chasing people around, dousing them with pepper spray, big vicious dogs barking and a helicopter hovering overhead for about an hour. It really felt like I was watching a tape of a civil rights march in the 1960s," said Hershfield, of New Jersey.

O'Brien said explosive sounds like firecrackers might have caused campus police to seek the aid of sheriff's deputies, and deputies to seek help from state police. She said it was proper for campus police to call for help and that sheriff's deputies have been called to the campus before.

The incident began, O'Brien said, when several parties spilled onto the campus, the crowd would not disperse and there were several explosive sounds. As many as 400 students might have been involved in several parties that spilled outdoors, she said.

She said officials received reports of students drinking alcohol, but it was not clear yesterday whether the students drinking were of legal age. That's something she said college officials would investigate. Drinking alcoholic beverages by anyone younger than age 21 is illegal in Maryland.

One student, Stephanie Bair, said, "No one was out of hand before the cops got here." She confirmed alcohol had been consumed. "It was a very controlled group. People were standing in groups just talking, listening to music, and dancing."

Though police would not reveal the number of officers who responded to the call, students estimated about 25 officers showed up.

The St. Mary's Sheriff's Department said four cars responded to the call for help from campus police, but could not say how many deputies were at the scene. State police said four officers and cars responded.

Leonardtown lawyer David W. Densford spent much of yesterday meeting with students who had been arrested.

He said most of the students he talked to were "ticked off. The concern will come later, when they realize that this arrest will affect their careers in a very real way."

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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